Participation and Democracy East and West: Comparisons and Interpretations

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In Europe, confidence in political institutions dropped sharply after the onset of the euro crisis. According to Eurobarometer, trust in national parliaments across the European Union fell from 38 percent in to 28 percent in , while trust in national governments declined from 34 percent to 27 percent.


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It also revealed a large gap in satisfaction with democracy between those Europeans who think the economy is doing well and those who do not—a difference of more than 40 percentage points in France, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, and Sweden. How do these patterns fit into longer-term trends? Survey data collected since the s suggest a general decline in institutional trust among Americans and many Europeans over the past several decades. In the United States, trust in government has fluctuated over the course of the past decades, with an increase in public confidence in the early s and a renewed drop since former president George W.

For example, while the UK and Poland witnessed a rising tide of public mistrust in government institutions during the s, Belgium and Finland experienced the reverse. In an overall context of declining trust, citizens view some democratic institutions—political parties, national legislatures, and governments—in a particularly negative light. A key driver seems to be the perception that these institutions are failing to do their jobs. For example, heightened polarization and legislative gridlock in the United States has fueled rising disenchantment with Congress.

Decreasing levels of trust in political institutions do not necessarily indicate that voters in Western democracies are turning away from democratic values en masse. While there is some evidence that younger voters may be more open to nondemocratic forms of governance than older generations, the significance of these findings remains contested: several scholars have noted that this trend may constitute an age, rather than a cohort, effect that it is largely confined to certain Western democracies, and that confidence in specific institutions actually appears to be lower among older voters.

Yet many citizens are clearly frustrated with democratic performance. In countries like France, Italy, Poland, Spain, the UK, and the United States, a sizable share of the population expresses support for the idea of rule by experts or, to a lesser degree, rule by a strong leader or the military.

This trend is particularly striking in Hungary, a country that has experienced significant backsliding over the past several years: 68 percent support rule by experts as a good way to govern the country. An electorate frustrated with ineffective and unrepresentative governance may be more likely to welcome this type of overreach, or vote for candidates that mobilize against institutional constraints with the promise of renewal.

One institution has borne the brunt of popular discontent: mainstream political parties are struggling to engage ordinary citizens. In Europe, the result has been a rise in support for far-right and, in some countries, far-left parties and populist movements. In the United States, it is expressed in growing voter discontent with both major parties.

In both places, new civic and protest movements have emerged that circumvent traditional forms of party engagement. Political parties are consistently ranked the most disliked political institution in most Western democracies. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, centrist European parties that had embraced globalization, immigration, and various degrees of neoliberalism struggled to provide clear policy solutions. Trust in political parties declined precipitously, particularly in some parts of Western and Southern Europe.

Large numbers began turning their back to establishment parties: between and , European challenger parties increased their vote share from around 10 to 23 percent see figure 4. A greater diversity of parties and political voices can, of course, be seen positively, leading to better representation. In Spain, for example, the formation of the left-wing Podemos—which emerged from anticorruption and antiausterity protests—brought new wind into the Spanish political arena. Yet the weakening of centrist parties also poses real challenges.

First, while not all populist challengers are necessarily antidemocratic, antiestablishment sentiments have benefited far-right parties with deeply illiberal and xenophobic strands.

In Hungary and Poland, the election of nationalist parties that ran on antiestablishment platforms has led to attacks on the separation of powers as well as on independent civil society and media. Second, greater political fragmentation makes it more difficult for political parties to form stable governing coalitions and pass difficult policy reforms. In Austria, Germany, and the Netherlands, greater political fragmentation has led to years of grand coalitions between left- and right-wing parties that have fueled voter discontent with undifferentiated centrism. Much will depend on whether mainstream parties successfully reinvigorate their political platforms—and the extent to which challenger parties can retain their outsider appeal.

In the United States, the majoritarian electoral system creates a fundamentally different party landscape, with limited opportunities for new party formation. Yet voter identification and satisfaction with political parties has also declined. Ahead of the election, six in ten Americans said that neither major party represented their views—a thirteen percent increase since see figure 5.

In , both the Democratic Party and Republican Party establishments were rattled by outsider challengers. The progressive base of the Democrats is increasingly pushing back against a centrist party leadership that is viewed as out of touch with popular grievances, lacking moral and political integrity, and too cautious in its reform proposals.

In fact, recent social science research shows that self-identified U. Social scientists have advanced structural explanations to explain long-term trends of voter disengagement from political parties. In Europe for example, polling data suggests that most young people do not want to join political parties and generally hold them in low regard.

Disengagement from parties has not necessarily gone hand-in-hand with political apathy.

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New social movements and citizen initiatives have emerged that push for representation and responsiveness outside of party channels. On both sides of the Atlantic, governments and citizens are struggling to adjust to increasingly fragmented public information spaces and deliberate efforts to spread disinformation and stir mistrust. The speed, scale, and reach of digital information flows have fundamentally reshaped the ways information is disseminated and consumed.

As little as five years ago, this trend was still celebrated by many as fundamentally democratizing. Yet the sheer amount of information now available also means that readers carry much greater responsibility to assess the quality of news content.

The role played by social media networks and increasing efforts by foreign governments to manipulate these platforms pose decidedly new threats to fact-based political discourse. Several trends are worth highlighting. First, many Western democracies are characterized by relatively low levels of trust in traditional media outlets.

A Eurobarometer survey found that only 34 percent of respondents across Europe claimed to trust the media see figure 6 , with particularly low levels of trust in France, the UK, and Greece see figure 7. Those who placed themselves in the lower-middle or working class and were worse off economically were particularly likely to express distrust.

The democratic distemper

In the United States, trust in the mass media has decreased from 53 percent in to 32 percent in , according to polling data. And while 60 percent of Republicans view Fox News as an objective media outlet, only 3 percent of Democrats agree.


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Second, increasing numbers of citizens in the United States and Europe obtain at least some of their news from social media, even though traditional broadcasters and newspapers still play a dominant role. Third, online political discourse has also enabled the deliberate diffusion of false information and rumors for political purposes, as evidenced by the professional online trolls and political ads used by the Russian government to influence the U. All three trends are clearly interrelated. The common thread is that citizens are finding it harder to determine which news sources are trustworthy and accurate and which are not.

Low levels of trust in professional media outlets in turn make it harder to disprove false or inflammatory claims. The dissemination of inaccurate or misleading information can distort election campaigns, affect public opinion, and reinforce inter-group prejudices and animosity—all of which risk undermining the quality of democratic debate and representation. Current threats to democracy emanate not only from changing citizen perceptions and preferences but also from illiberal government actions.

In general, both the United States and Western European countries offer strong protections for core civil liberties such as freedom of association, assembly, and expression. This stands in contrast to Eastern and Central Europe, where independent civil society and the media have increasingly come under attack. Yet in all of these regions, government responses to heightened terrorist threats have triggered new concerns over creeping extensions of executive power.

In the United States, the passing of the Patriot Act after the September 11 terrorist attacks ushered in a trend of heightened surveillance and weak regulatory oversight and disclosure. Snowden revealed that the U.

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In Europe, the recent spike in terrorist attacks has spurred a flurry of legislation: ten European countries have enacted significant new antiterror laws since France is a prominent example. The country was in a state of emergency for nearly two years before adopting a sweeping new counterterrorism law in October Between November and May , French authorities used emergency powers to issue decrees prohibiting public assemblies and imposed measures banning specific individuals from participating in protests—at least of which targeted individuals demonstrating against proposed labor market reforms.

These trends—while not entirely new—have received much greater attention with the rising electoral success of populist parties and leaders.


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Yet despite this new sense of shared democratic distress, the United States still suffers from longer-standing institutional problems and democratic weaknesses that are somewhat or much less acute in Europe, and that feed into popular discontent with the media and U. First, unusually high levels of partisan polarization and gridlock have weakened democratic norms of civility and contributed to low public confidence in Congress. In addition, rising socioeconomic inequality—while not a democratic weakness per se—has fueled increasing vertical polarization These two patterns of polarization coexist with a highly contested electoral system that is both unusually decentralized and partisan: as a result, problems related to campaign spending, voter registration, and gerrymandering are much more pressing than in Europe.

Together, these factors also help explain why the United States has one of the lowest turnout rates among Western democracies. Political scientists highlight partisan polarization as one of the most urgent threats to U. At the level of voters, polls show that both partisan sorting and partisan animosity have increased, particularly among those who are most politically active. The share of Americans with a highly negative view of the opposing party has more than doubled since The two major parties used to be fairly similar—both were overwhelmingly white, male, and Protestant.